BAGHDAD, Iraq—Despite the addition of almost 100,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi troops in the past year, American efforts to pacify central Iraq and the capital appear to be failing, challenging a central assumption behind the U.S. strategy in Iraq: that training more Iraqi security forces will allow American troops to start going home.
The number of trained Iraqi soldiers and police grew from an estimated 168,670 in June 2005 to some 264,600 this June. Yet Baghdad's morgue is receiving nearly twice as many dead Iraqis each day as it did last year. The number of bombings causing multiple fatalities has risen steadily. Attacks on American and Iraqi troops last month grew 44 percent from June 2005.
"Even as the number and capabilities of Iraqi security forces have increased, overall security conditions have deteriorated," concluded a report that the Government Accountability Office submitted to Congress earlier this month.
Baghdad, usually clogged with traffic, has fallen quiet in recent weeks. Shops are shuttered. Roads are nearly empty in many neighborhoods. No one wants to be caught out in the open by gunmen, who set up roadblocks with seeming impunity.
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who commands the task force that's training Iraq's army, didn't respond to written questions about whether the U.S. still has confidence in the training program. Other American officers in Iraq acknowledged the difficulties but counseled patience.
"You don't stand up an organization ... overnight and expect it to have all the same values, the same organization, the same commitment as you might in other organizations that's been in existence for 10 or 15 years," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said recently. "I mean, they're only a month and a half into their new government right now. They're only three years into this new formation of their armed forces. So they do have some ways to still go."
If the U.S.-led effort to stand up more Iraqi troops and police doesn't start improving security in the capital and other troubled areas, however, the Bush administration may be forced to consider sending more troops to Iraq, trying to convince other nations to send troops or even beginning to withdraw some Americans from the worst areas—or from Iraq. That could risk triggering the all-out civil war that some think has already begun.
Indeed, the growing violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has raised troubling questions about whether Iraqi forces, which are disproportionately drawn from the Shiite population, are helping to curb the bloodshed or are contributing to it.
Eyewitnesses at some scenes of sectarian cleansing in Sunni areas report that gunmen travel in government vehicles. Others note that attackers have traveled from one neighborhood to another through police checkpoints, apparently unchallenged.
In Shiite areas, residents complain that security forces seem unable to stop large groups of Sunni fighters, who either detonate large car bombs, killing dozens, or swarm in large groups wielding AK-47 rifles and grenades.
In Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah, the few remaining Shiite families recently got notes on their doorsteps that said, "Leave Ghazaliyah, you Shiites, or be ready for death." A single bullet accompanied each note.
One Shiite who lives there, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Ali, said Iraqi army checkpoints "disappear from the area at sunset, which is why we guard ourselves."
Many Iraqis fear that the goal of a peaceful, unified country with a representative government and competent security forces will remain unachievable for a long time to come.
Some U.S. officials acknowledge privately that their hopes that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to rein in Shiite militia groups and persuade Sunni insurgents to negotiate may be misplaced. Many of the government's leaders, they note, are themselves linked to Shiite or Kurdish militias or guerrilla groups.
"I keep hope up—it's misguided perhaps—that cooler heads will prevail," said an American defense official in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "I have to believe that; otherwise all of this has been a tremendous, tremendous fiasco."
Statistics indicate that the security situation is steadily deteriorating, despite the much-heralded ascendancy of the Maliki government in April and the death in June of the country's most notorious terrorist, al-Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Last month, the Baghdad morgue received the bodies of 1,595 Iraqis who'd been killed by violence in and around the capital, the highest toll since Saddam Hussein fell in 2003, according to morgue officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired from their government jobs or being targeted by armed groups.
In June 2005, the director of the Baghdad morgue said he received 700 to 800 bodies a month, or 24 to 26 a day. Now, the morgue is receiving at least 50 slain Iraqis each day, morgue officials said.
A human rights report that the United Nations mission in Baghdad released Tuesday says 2,669 civilians were killed across Iraq during May and 3,149 were killed in June. In total, 14,338 civilians were killed from January to June this year, and 150,000 were forced out of their homes, the report says.
Sunni insurgent attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces continue unabated. While the number of American troops killed by hostile fire has declined, the average daily number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police nationwide increased by 44 percent last month versus June 2005, to 88 from 61.
Other months have shown similar increases: April was up 59 percent, to 86 this year from 54 last year, and May was up 44 percent, to 91 from 63, according to figures supplied by the U.S. military in Baghdad.
Statistics compiled by The Brookings Institution in Washington indicate that daily attacks by insurgents have risen consistently during the past three years.
They also show a steady rise in multiple-fatality bombings, a hallmark of Sunni insurgents and foreign terrorists. In 2004, the highest monthly total was 19 multiple-fatality bombings, which occurred in only one month that year. In 2005, the highest monthly total was 46. This year, there already have been two months in which the total has surpassed 50.
Major attacks now come with startling frequency.
_On July 8, a car bomb killed at least five people in front of a Shiite mosque in a Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad. On July 9, gunmen whom residents identified as members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia pulled Sunnis from their homes and cars and shot them dead in the street. Iraqi police put the number of dead at more than 40, though U.S. military officials said their troops found just 14 bodies. The next day, two car bombs detonated in a northeast Baghdad neighborhood known as a Sadr stronghold, killing at least eight Shiites and wounding more than 30.
_On Monday, dozens of gunmen, presumably Sunnis, stormed into a market in the town of Mahmoudiya, just south of Baghdad, and killed more than 45 people and wounded at least 90—almost all of them Shiites—in a hailstorm of AK-47 fire, grenades and mortars. Witnesses said Iraqi police and army troops stationed nearby didn't appear until after the killing was over.
_On Tuesday, a man pulled up to a group of laborers across the street from a Shiite shrine in the southern town of Kufa and asked if they were looking for work. When a crowd gathered around his minivan, the man detonated a bomb, killing more than 50 Iraqis and wounding about 120.
There are about 8,000 American soldiers in Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a top U.S. spokesman in Iraq.
"They can't be everywhere all the time in a city of over 7 million people," he said.
That's left many areas governed by AK-47s.
Ali said his vigilante force in the Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah usually was joined by Shiites from a Shiite neighborhood to the east, who were there to make sure the Sunnis didn't push farther toward them.
Ali and his neighbors were watching from their rooftops this month when they saw gunmen approaching through the alleyways from several directions. The gunmen were carrying AK-47s and heavy PKC machine guns.
"They started firing at our houses. They didn't expect a very quick response, but we gave them one ... we surrounded them. They were in a trap, and gunfire on them was from everywhere," Ali said, relishing the story. "We killed a lot of them; I don't know an exact number. After defeating them, it was our turn to attack. We followed them, and we saw them entering (a) mosque, which we shot with two rocket-propelled grenades. And then we returned home."
Ali said he was ready for the next fight, the next chance to defend his piece of Baghdad.
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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Mohammed al Dulaimy and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.